As Aug. 31, the execution date of Ronald Wayne Frye draws near, high-ranking lawyers have begun lobbying for clemency in an unusual move that is calling attention to the unprofessional conduct of one of their own and raising hopes among Frye's supporters and death-penalty opponents.
In the meantime, an unfortunate coincidence of timing raises a grimace of irony on Ronnie Frye's face from behind the Central Prison visitation room glass. Frye's execution date is his brother David's 44th birthday, and the irony is this: His fears of hurting his family originally kept him from talking about his horrific childhood and his drug habit during the sentencing phase of his murder trial. That led an appeals judge to rule that he blocked his own defense by not discussing--or allowing family members to testify about--circumstances a jury could have considered "mitigating factors" in deciding whether to spare his life.
"I didn't want my family involved. I felt like I had shamed them enough already," says Frye, 42, who was convicted in the Feb. 8, 1993, Catawba County stabbing death of his landlord. Now, he says, "It's like they're punishing David for being my brother."
Frye says a lifetime of alcohol and drug addiction led him to kill Ralph Childress, with whom he had had a long, friendly relationship. Childress had posted eviction notices on Frye's door that evening. Investigators charged Frye after finding a bloody pair of scissors and the eviction note next to Childress' body.
In the aftermath, Frye chose not to call on his family for help--even the brother who, when they were children, had endured bloody beatings with him, who had begged for food by his side.
"He needed all the help he could get, but I'm afraid he pretty much didn't understand that at the time--that he was fighting for his life," says David Frye, a furniture builder who now lives in Newton.
Frye's supporters say his reluctance to involve his family was a hurdle a capable defense attorney could have cleared. But attorney Tom Portwood suffered from alcoholism, drinking as many as 12 shots daily before and during Frye's trial, according to his own statements.
"I just think it's outrageous that you can have a rum-soaked attorney, and court after court can say, 'So what?' when the outcome for 'So what?' is Ronnie's death," says Marilyn Ozer, one of Frye's Chapel Hill lawyers.
As the execution date draws closer, expressions of professional indignation have begun to gather steam among some of Portwood's high-profile colleagues.
"A system that puts Frye to death without representation is markedly unjust," UNC law school dean and professor Gene Nichol wrote in an Aug. 22 op-ed in The News & Observer. "It mocks our commitment to equality under law. It ought to embarrass both bench and bar. At this late date, it is up to the governor to demand that we do better."
As of press time, Nichol, Hank VanHoy, the North Carolina Bar Association president, as well as the current and past presidents of the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers (NCATAL) and former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice James Exum were scheduled to petition Gov. Mike Easley at a clemency hearing on Aug. 28. The academy, a powerful lobby, also issued a strong statement this week protesting Frye's execution."As trial lawyers, we find the defense counsel's performance in this case to be so far below minimum standards so as to have directly affected the importance of the death sentence," said NCATL President Burton Craige. "We feel compelled to speak up as members of the bar, and urge the governor to grant clemency in this case."
Portwood's drinking eventually led to his removal from a 1996 capital case. Three former clients, including Frye, face the death penalty.
Two jurors who originally sentenced Frye to death now say if Portwood had told them more, they would have spared the defendant's life.
"A background of neglect and abuse would have changed my decision and my vote," juror Robert Null told the Hickory Daily Record earlier this month.
And yet, appellate courts have upheld the sentence, despite gruesome details about the 34-year-long path that led Frye to kill the 70-year-old victim.
When Frye and his brother David were 4 and 5 years old, their biological mother gave them away to strangers "like unwanted kittens," say his attorneys. They remained in this home until teachers discovered 8-year-old Ronnie covered in lash marks from beatings with a bullwhip. Authorities moved the boys, charging the "father" with child abuse. The evidence was so compelling that police used the photos of Ronnie's red-welted young body as examples in domestic violence workshops. The boys then passed through a series of homes, all of them abusive and neglectful. Ronnie Frye began sniffing glue at 11, smoked his first joint at 15 and had been a crack cocaine addict for more than a decade at the time of the murder
"It was wrong," Frye says of his crime. "That's what a life of drugs and alcohol will do to you--you can be killing yourself and killing someone else at the same time."
After eight years of sobriety, Frye now spends his days on death row playing cards, assembling jigsaw puzzles and preaching God's teachings to fellow inmates while he waits for the final news. "I was gettin' nowhere, and then I got here."